On a Dog
If I believed in Hell, I would expect there to be a particularly loathsome dungeon for the torture of those who have abused the trust of dogs. Were I an advocate of capital punishment, I would impose that offense upon those that have misused dogs. By evolution, dogs have made a contract with human kind. The beast gives up its cunning and wiles, its natural ferocity and, even much of its hunting instinct in exchange for human company. Dogs have relinquished their ability to survive without the assistance of human beings – they have lost their capacity for the wild and their initiative for freedom in order to become friends to mankind. This is an inestimable gift: most of the time, the world regards us with indifference. Trees and boulders and waterfalls, prowling grizzly bears and soaring hawks – these things no need for us; they are empty, if beautiful, mirrors. In the eyes of dog, however, our natural vanity – an aspect of the soul that is integral to being human – has a mirror, can see itself reflected with some considerable amount of the love and adoration which we naturally regard as our due. Without a barking dog, the night is listless, a mere corridor of inhuman gloom.
I suppose my thesis might be expanded to all domestic animals. The same analysis might be extended to goats and sheep, cows, even turkeys and chicken. With these animals, however, the contract is more utilitarian because intrinsically gustatory – and I am not unmindful that the Shoshone that greeted Lewis and Clark and the leopard-warriors of Tenochtitlan ate dogs – so the bond is less close. Nonetheless, in my ideal republic those who mistreated domestic animals would be subject to the supreme penalty. One who kills a honeybee destroys one of the legislators of the world.
My dog Chi-chi was the daughter of pit bull appraised to be the dumbest dog ever seen. The female pit bull came to its owner, a man who kept hunting dogs, by marriage. Compared to his retrievers, I suppose, the hapless pit bull wasn’t too bright, but everyone said that she was gentle and had a good heart. The bitch had been kept for breeding purposes, but she was promiscuous and the litter in which Chi-chi was whelped looked to be part labrador and part terrier of some kind. The puppies were tiny and very cute. When she was little, Chi-chi slept curled up in an abandoned frying pan that my daughters kept on our porch for playing house.
The name Chi-chi is a corruption of Theresa. My smallest child, Angelica, had trouble pronouncing the name of her older sister, Theresa. The noise that she made came out “Chi-chi.” Somehow these sounds were applied to the dog. The relationship between a puppy and small children is complicated and so the name that one child applied to an older sibling also became the name of the puppy. Linguists and anthropologists possibly could explain how this happened. I can not.
In a way, the name was unfortunate. My neighbors across the street are a wholesome, hardworking Mexican family. The word “Chi-chi” in Mexican Spanish is a vulgarism like “titties.” The little girl in Mexican family sometimes call Chi-chi “the dog whose name is not to be spoken.”
Chi-chi was tiny at first, but she had big paws and, in six months, the dog had grown to be a big, powerful animal with a broad, pale white chest. Chi-chi was the generic mutt – the outcome of random breeding: an animal with an intelligent vaguely jackal-shaped head, yellow, with an upraised, eloquent tail like a question-mark. She was immensely strong. Once straining at her leash, she half-pulled my right shoulder out of joint – I had to have an MRI (I didn’t fit in the capsule), consultations with an orthopaedic surgeon and 12 weeks of physical therapy.
Because she was large and active, I walked Chi-chi five days a week. Sometimes, I would walk her every day in the week. We had five different routes, each of which Chi-chi marked every hundred yards by lifting her leg like a male dog. One route lead past the High School up along 4th Street and, then, back on a parallel residential lane – the route passed the home of a man who put up a sign saying that if my dog “visited his bushes” he would call the mayor to have me punished. Another route went south to a narrow sidewalk that turned toward the American Legion post and the empty lots where people parked during the County Fair. Another way that we walked lead us through the park, past the bandshell and picnic shelter retrieved from the ruins of an Episcopal Church flooded-out some years earlier. Another route went to the mall and the Dairy Queen and lead back by the flowering bushes in front of the McDonald’s – in good weather, you could hear the voices from inside the restaurant greeting people in cars and taking their orders. Once, while walking past McDonald’s, a Mexican man told me that he admired my dog and said “Amigo, I have one like that in Texas.” He said that he knew my dog was very fierce and a good fighter because of the “war collar” I had around her neck – that was a stainless steel loop with points turned inward onto the scruff of the dog’s throat. The last route took me past liquor stores to the Courthouse and the war memorial than back along east-facing dowdy towers of the old High School to my home and the fenced backyard where Chi-chi spent her days. (She slept in an utility room off my kitchen at night).
Chi-chi loved her walks. Along the route that lead through the park, there was a big wooded lawn where squirrels darted and played rolling back to a church in the shade of the elms. Sometimes, I would drop the leash so Chi-chi could chase the squirrels. Of course, they always escaped to chatter at her from the trees while she dipped her nose in their delicious scents arrayed like a blossoming skirt around the elm’s trunk.
I put Chi-chi down on Thursday, June 17, 2010 at about nine-o’clock in the morning. She had been very sick and was comatose when the veterinarian stopped her heart with an injection of poison. Her death taught me something important about dying.
When my father died, he had been hospitalized for eight or ten days, laboring against a failed heart. The nurses attended to his hygiene, brushed his teeth, and gave him baths with sponges. They trimmed his beard as he lay helpless in his hospital bed. When he died, my father made a plump, pink corpse, a neat and well-groomed head and torso extruded from white sheets, although biting down hard, it seemed, at a bluish plastic tube, like a cigar, between his lips. The day before he died, my father said to my mother that he was sure that he wasn’t going to make it. He said that he felt “all worn out.”
I didn’t understand what he meant. He didn’t look all worn out. He looked more or less like he always looked.
We think of death, often, as a bolt from the blue – as bullet piercing the heart or a stroke, a sudden sneak attack. But, of course, that’s not how death does it work. Rather, the process of dying, often, is one of isolation, increasing weakness, dilapidation, systematic, but slow, collapse. That is how Chi-chi died and I think there was a lesson in it.
About six weeks before she collapsed, Chi-chi seemed disoriented. During our walks, she would often stand still, nibbling at a fern or a green weed, confused, it appeared, as to where we were. She lagged behind and the gait in her front legs was irregular – sometimes, she missed her footing and lunged forward to catch herself from falling. It was our custom to walk twenty blocks, but, after five or six now, she was exhausted, panting heavily and had to rest on the boulevard by the curb. She licked at her flanks until the fur was all rubbed away and bleeding patches the size of silver dollars covered her hips and sides. Chi-chi always suffered from bad allergies in the late Spring and Summer and her eyes were matted and gooey and black matter ran down her face so that it seemed that she was weeping dark, tarry tears. Until she was old, the allergies always faded as the summer advanced, but, during the last couple of years, I had been alarmed – particularly by the excoriated patches on her legs and flanks – and so I took her to the veterinarian. They injected Chi-chi, snarling and writhing on the stainless steel table, with cortisone and antibiotic and, then, I gave her a dose of analgesic for her arthritis daily, in a wad of peanut butter and bread.
This May, however, and early June, the infection seemed worse and the damaged patch on her side was the size of a CD, bloody and raw, and long, thick ribbons of white foam dangled from her jaws and chin, bearding her in a kind of froth. Further, the dog somehow lacerated her head, over and over again, right above her eyes, and she had a brow wrinkled and scabby with scar tissue. She no longer wagged her tail when I said we were going to walk. She missed steps, fell off the curb, and, after twenty or thirty paces, simply sat down, putting her muzzle in the grass to search out and eat weeds.
Alarmed, I took Chi-chi to the vet. The vet said that the dog had an infection and bad allergies but that she was otherwise healthy. Using a flashlight, the vet looked in Chi-chi’s eyes and told me that she was mostly blind – her eyes are full of cataracts, the vet said. The vet took some blood and called me an hour later to say that the dog was old, but still healthy.
We went home. Chi-chi seemed a little better and could walk three or four blocks without a rest. But her footing was still uncertain. She banged her head on trees and fences. Once, when I was walking, she lagged behind. I heard her scream, turned, and saw that the dog had caught one of the claws on her hind paw in a stanchion supporting a road barricade. The road had been shredded to clots of earth and Chi-chi had somehow trapped one of her claws in a screw hole in the stanchion support and, now, her leg was dangerously twisted and she was screaming. This alarmed me because Chi-chi was a fantastically strong dog that never cried-out. (When she would get into fights with other dogs, I would beat her across the shoulders and head with a four-foot walking stick that I carried – of course, I didn’t dare beat the other guy’s dog – and so intent was she on the duel with the other animal that she wouldn’t even flinch.) I freed her foot from the trap, petted her on the scabby head, and, then, we walked –Chi-chi limping – back home.
Four days before she died, Chi-chi seemed to rally. She danced and pranced in the back yard, wagging her tail, when I asked if she wanted to “go for a walk.” We went to the Law Office, a total of eight blocks, and, although, Chi-chi was panting heavily, she seemed back to her old self.
The next night, Chi-chi threw up gallons of pinkish vomit in the utility room. I kicked her and, then, pushed her outside where she spent the night in her heavy, two-room dog house. In the morning, she came out of the dog house and lay on the paving stones, but would not eat. When I came home, she was still lying on her side, flies crawling on her muzzle, unable to eat. I put her water bowl next to her. She lifted her head and looked at me sadly, then, put her head down again. Julie was afraid that Chi-chi would crawl over to her den and die inside the back, inaccessible room of the dog house. She told me to bar the entrance to the dog house. I went into the fenced back yard where Chi-chi lived at about nine and found that she had, in fact, somehow reached her dog house and vanished into that warm, foul-smelling den. “She will die in her dog house,” I said. I couldn’t sleep. It bothered me to think of the dog all alone in that black, wooden den.
At dawn, I came downstairs and heard her crying loudly. I went into the backyard and found Chi-chi lying fifteen feet from her dog house. Her paws and forepaws and her belly was all covered in black mud. She had apparently crept out of the dog house and crossed the back yard crawling on her belly. I petted her head and tried to give her some water. She was too weak to lift her muzzle over the rim of the drinking bowl. I went inside and got a soup bowl full of ice chips which I put under her nose. She cried a little but didn’t lick at the ice. Her muzzle was pretty much sutured shut with dried phlegm and foam had come from her mouth and dried in thick, adhesive bands over her whiskers. She was very dirty and smelled bad and her ears looked infected – they were raw with yellow pus inside. She looked decrepit, dilapidated, all worn-out. I set the drinking bowl full ice and water under her nose. For a moment, she put her nose on the rim of the bowl and I thought Chi-chi was going to drink, but, then, her head dropped and she lay there, motionless, her flanks rising up and down, and, now, her head all lopsided because the point of her nose was still balanced on the bowl’s rim.
A dying dog is very heavy, dead-weight, that flops against you and yearns to drop down to the ground. I carried the dog against my belly into the house and lay her on a blanket in the utility room. She began to cry loudly. Then, I picked her up and put her on a blanket on the couch in the living room so that she could watch Tv with Angelica. I went to work.
Angelica called me twenty minutes later and said that the dog had begun crying, had wriggled off the couch and fallen onto the floor where she was now lying in her own excrement. I came home, carried Chi-chi to the back of my van. She lay across the blanket there with her eyes dull and half-open, her belly twitching a little up and down. She was very dirty and I felt that, perhaps, I should wash her off or something – but Chi-chi was not a dog that had ever taken a bath and I didn’t know how she would respond to water poured on her.
The veterinarian said: “It’s time.” She told me “Chi-chi is all worn-out.” The lady vet was plump and pretty with big eyes. She used a razor to shear off Chi-chi’s fur above her right front paw. Then, she inserted a large-gage needle into a vein. The syringe was blue and attached to a transparent bluish plastic tube. About eighteen inches upstream from the syringe, there was a double chamber with a kind of screw on it. The lady veterinarian turned the screw and, then, injected the mixture into the dog by pushing down on the syringe. When the poison reached Chi-chi’s heart, she took six or seven gulps of air, very quickly, and, then, turned her head up as if trying to lift her nose so that it would be at right angles to her back. I told Chi-chi that she was a good dog and stroked her head. Her eyes became very bright once more and gleaming. Then, she shook slightly and the vet put a stethoscope to her breast to verify that she was dead. The dog’s tail wagged weakly. “That will happen,” the vet said. “It is just nerves still firing.”
The lady vet and her helper asked me if I wanted the ashes. I put my hand on Chi-chi’s side. “No,” I said. “It’s a dead dog.” “Okay,” the lady vet said. They asked me if I wanted to keep her collar: “No,” I said, “it’s too sad.”
I went out in the lobby to pay the bill. In another room, people were laughing. It was someone’s birthday and the staff were making jokes about being ‘over-the-hill.’ I looked at the various collars, flea lotions, ointments, nutrition supplements. The receptionist handed me a bill for $130 dollars. After I paid, the receptionist said that she was very sorry. I didn’t know what to say and went to my car and drove back to work.
These are the landmarks in a dog’s life.
Chi-Chi was separated from her siblings too soon and was never properly socialized with other dogs. She approached stranger dogs with her tail wagging and, then, without warning, lunged forward to seize the other animal by the jowl. Her ambition was to kill all other dogs.
When she was about eleven months old, I had Chi-chi spayed. She licked the sutures and brooded on the operation for two days from within her plastic kennel in the utility room. Then, she was fine.
When Jack was about eleven, I had him walk Chi-chi around the block. I was busy and couldn’t spare the time to walk her. A local lady had a little black fur-ball of a dog that she walked. Chi-chi saw the fur-ball, broke free from Jack, and attacked the little beast hurling it from her jaws through the air. Jack got control of Chi-chi and came home to tell me that she had attacked the little black dog and that the lady “was real mad.” Sure enough, the lady came to my porch, carrying her little dog. She was indignant and the little dog seemed limp, perhaps, suffering some kind of canine shock. The little dog lolled on her arms showing its pinkish-blue belly. I said that if my dog had injured the little creature, she should have the animal treated by a veterinarian and I would pay all reasonable charges. “It was irresponsible of you to make that little boy walk that big, mean dog,” the lady said. As it happened, the little dog was stunned, but, not, otherwise hurt. Yesterday, I saw that same lady, older I suppose and greyer, walking her nasty little black rodent. It pained me to think of poor Chi-chi dead and gone and that wicked little black rat still parading through the the world.
When she was young, I gave Chi-chi big ox bones to gnaw. As she grew older, and stronger, she reduced the bones to slivers which she, then, ate whole and vomited out the next day. Sometimes, she would dig holes next to the house and bury her bones.
Once, I got mad at her for pulling so hard against the leash. I said: “I’m going to pull your head off.” I yanked at the dog as hard as I could. She yanked back and pulled my shoulder out of joint.
On our walk past the High School up along Fourth Street, there was a small white fluffy dog called Snowball residing in a fenced backyard. Chi-chi loved to lunge and snarl and growl at Snowball. Snowball, for her part, raced along the fence-line taunting Chi-chi with high-pitched yelps. We saw Snowball every four or five days and Chi-chi looked forward to trying to thrust her muzzle through the chain-link fence so that she could shake the little white fluffy creature to death. One day, Snowball wasn’t there. Chi-chi never forgot a house or a yard where a dog lived and she trotted back and forth along the fence-line growling and snarling and howling for Snowball to come out and play. Snowball’s collection of sooty-looking tennis balls lay scattered about the back yard and her silver bowl was by the back steps to the house. But Snowball was gone. A week later, a little girl who lived in the house told us that Snowball had got out and been run over by car.
Once, my sister’s husband, Roger, came to our house for supper. Roger raised exotic toads, snakes, and turtles. He had just finished feeding some dead rats, carefully thawed in the microwave, to his boa constrictors. Chi-chi sniffed Roger’s hands, snarled and her ears flattened against her head. Verily, I have encountered the Devil, Chi-chi’s demeanor seemed to say. She leaped up to try to tear off his face.
A couple months later, a friend of ours brought a woman from Chicago over to our house. The woman was a crook, a malingerer, a parasite, and a con-man. Chi-chi lunged at her and tried to tear her face off.
Chi-chi never bit any human being. She attacked and bit many, many dogs.
Along our route by the Dairy Queen, there was a big Rottweiler that lived down the alleyway. The man who owned the Rottweiler seemed to know me, but I couldn’t place him. He sometimes called me by my first name when we strolled past his home. This was disconcerting because the man’s tone was clearly unfriendly and he seemed to be some kind of thug. One afternoon, he let his Rottweiler loose and the dog tore down the alley and leaped at Chi-chi. Chi-chi very cooly dodged and seized the Rottweiler by its jowls. She, then, began shaking her jaw to try to rip the dog’s muzzle apart. The Rottweiler screamed and tried to retreat but Chi-chi held her fast in her jaws. I took my club and beat Chi-chi on the shoulders six or seven time as hard as I could and, only then, did she let the Rottweiler free. The big black dog bolted back down the alley. The thug who owned the dog looked half-drunk. “I’m sorry John, I’m so sorry, he just got loose,” the man said. “It’s okay,” I said. “You didn’t need to hit my dog with your stick, John,” the man said. “I didn’t,” I said. “I hit my own dog.” Chi-chi was lunging and pulling at the leash. “Well, I’m really sorry that my dog bit your dog, I’m just really sorry.” “It’s okay,” I said. I walked away very quickly. I wanted to get out on the avenue by the Dairy Queen and the McDonald’s before the man discovered what Chi-chi had done to his Rottweiler.
During a thaw, once, a big, fat muskrat came out from a den near the river and ambled across the puddled lawns by the bandshell. It was a March night with full, buttery moon. Chi-chi pulled hard on my leash and so I let her go. She charged the muskrat. There was a brief ferocious encounter, then, Chi-chi shrieked and came trotting back to me wagging her tail. The muskrat had bit her right through her cheek, but Chi-chi was very happy and pranced all the way home.
A year before she died, Chi-chi chased a squirrel up a tree. It was an old squirrel and very fat and, perhaps, blind as well. The squirrel darted up the tree, but didn’t see a protruding branch on which it struck its head. Dazed, the squirrel dropped down right into Chi-chi’s jaws. Chi-chi shook her head, bit down hard, and, then, let the squirrel loose. It fled across the lawn, running crookedly as if all its joints had been dislocated. Chi-chi looked at the squirrel but didn’t try to pursue it. In fact, she seemed a little surprised at how badly her jaws had damaged the squirrel. She shook her head against the leash and barked once or twice but didn’t chase the wounded animal.
A week before she died, Chi-chi trotted up to me in the back yard as I was grilling. Two baby crows had fallen from a nest somewhere overhead and she had them in her jaws. She wagged her tail. Her eyes were gleaming: “Look what I found for you, boss!” the dog said. The baby crows were still half-alive, squirming a little against the dog’s teeth. I tried to pull them free but it was obvious that I would injure them worse than they were already hurt pulling them out of Chi-chi’s grip. She danced back behind the gazebo. When I looked at her, ten minutes later, she was carefully eating the crows – beaks, claws, feathers and all. There was a distinct frothy grin on her face.
I would guess I walked my yellow dog 2500 times. Most of the time I walked my dog after work. On many occasions, I came home angry and sour with the world and felt a little better after having allowed the dog to drag me fifteen or twenty blocks.
Since my dog died, I’ve tried a few walks on my own. But my pace is all wrong – I go either too fast or too slow. And it’s as if I’m looking at the world through only one eye, with no nose.